ANTELOPE VALLEY, Nev. – Just after dawn, a dozen mustangs stampede across the high desert, harassed by a white helicopter that dips and swoops like a relentless insect. Frightened stallions lead a tightknit family band, including two wild-eyed foals that struggle to keep up.
Three animal activists watch through long-range camera lenses as wranglers hired by the federal Bureau of Land Management help drive the animals into a camouflaged corral. The private-contract pilot is paid $500 for each captured horse, dead or alive.
After a 10-mile run, one band of horses storms past the corral, prolonging the chase. While most of the horses enter the trap, a few break for open territory, the chopper in pursuit.
Few escape. The roundup corrals 180 mustangs, often employing a tactic that sets the species up to betray itself: A wrangler holds the reins of a tame horse at the mouth of the trap. As the mustangs draw close, the worker releases the animal — known as a Judas horse — which dashes into the corral, followed instinctively by the others.
Suddenly, out on the range, a single cocoa-colored mare stops in its tracks. Breathless and sweating, the animal stands its ground — whether in defiance or because it is simply too tired to go on — as the chopper hovers a few feet overhead, kicking up dust amid the thudding whir of the rotor blades.
Horse advocate Laura Leigh can take it no more.
"It's a horse in distress," she calls out to several BLM minders nearby. "You're supposed to break it off. Call off the pilot, please."
The BLM workers remain silent as the standoff drags on, until the horse finally moves slowly into captivity.
The decades-long debate over how to manage America's wild horses has descended into an often-rancorous feud between animal advocates and state and federal authorities.
BLM officials say the mustang population is out of control. Activists insist the agency has scapegoated an animal whose poise and dignity make it an apt symbol of the West.
The two sides disagree on just about everything: on how to stem the growth of mustang herds, whether domestic cattle or wild horses do more damage to range land and whether mustangs are a native or invasive species. They can't even agree how many wild horses are left on the range.
Bureau spokesman Tom Gorey calls the overheated battle the "natural-resource version of abortion."
"There is no easy way out, no fast way to a solution, no quick turnaround," he said. "The intensity brought by both sides makes everything harder."
This wasn't the scenario envisioned when the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 directed the BLM to maintain a "natural ecological balance" among horses, wildlife and cattle.
Critics say the bureau bends to the interests of ranchers who for generations have grazed their livestock on public lands leased for below-market cost. Though cattle often outnumber wild horses 50 to 1, ranchers blame mustangs for over-grazing the range.
"I've always felt those mustangs didn't get a fair break," said Bob Edwards, a former BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program official.
Horse advocates say federal officials pay only lip service to outside concerns. "I have a dream that one day we can all work together to keep these wild horses on the range," said Deniz Bolbol, spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "But the BLM continually slams the door in our face."
Officials counter that it's the animal activists who are inflexible and often shrill. When the BLM proposed gelding more males, activists filed a lawsuit to stop the practice, saying it robbed stallions of their spirit. The agency says it does the best it can to protect Western range lands with diminishing resources.
Each year the BLM rounds up thousands of mustangs in what critics call prolonged and often cruel chases that take place both during the frozen winter and extreme summer heat. Some state agencies do the same. Mustangs are trucked off to holding pens to be readied for adoption or sent to fenced-in Midwestern tracts — where ranchers are paid by the government to house the horses for the rest of their lives.
In 2012, holding costs of $42 million devoured more than half the BLM's $72-million budget for its horse and burro program, a financial outlay that has doubled since 2009.
The BLM estimates that 49,000 wild horses are held in government facilities, and that 31,500 remain on the range. Some activists say the number of free-roaming horses is half that.
A panel of scientists in June blasted the BLM bureau's emphasis on round-ups as "expensive and unproductive." The damning report called for more birth control — a vaccine for mares, chemical vasectomies for males — and urged the agency to improve how it estimates the horse population.
The study's authors called on the agency to show greater transparency in how it operates. The report, made at the request of the bureau itself, was written by a 14-member panel of the National Academy of Science's National Research Council.
This month, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell -- co-signed by 29 other House members -- asking the BLM to follow up on the academy's recommendations and halt its "unsustainable roundup-remove-and-stockpile approach to wild horse management."
"We have the information we need," Grijalva wrote. "Now it's time to do something with it."
Suzanne Roy, director of the Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, said the BLM must act now to release the wild mustangs held in captivity, instead of just ignoring the study's conclusions.
"We know the BLM program is scientifically unsound, fiscally reckless and extremely inhuman," she said. "The NAS was clear: Business as usual must change."
Gorey said the bureau was reviewing the recommendations in the report before developing an action plan. He said the study corroborated the BLM's longtime assertion that unchecked mustang herds grow at a rate of 20% a year. The study also made clear that the bureau was not overestimating herd populations on the range, as activists have claimed, he said.
"The accusation is that we have this conspiracy to lull the public to sleep while carrying out this horse extinction policy on the range," he said. "The report makes clear that we're undercounting horses, not overcounting. That myth was knocked down."
Gorey added that the academy's report also made clear that the bureau cannot just "let nature take care of horse numbers. That approach would not be popular with either Congress or the public," he said. "What the study says is that you don't sit back and let the excess horse population starve or dehydrate itself into oblivion," Gorey said. "You do something about it."
Although wild horses gathered from state lands or Native American reservations can be sold to so-called kill buyers and shipped to foreign slaughterhouses, mustangs on federal land are protected by law. They may not be sold to anyone who intends to have them killed.
Activists say federal protections contain loopholes that still can lead to horse slaughter.
Federal officials are investigating whether the BLM knowingly sold 1,700 to a known kill buyer from Colorado, the latest of numerous accusations over the years that horses in the care of the federal government were being killed.
Mustangs adopted under federal programs are tracked by the BLM for only one year — allowing for such oversights, activists say. Others that fail three adoption efforts or are 10 years old or older are not tracked at all.
In Nevada, home to half the remaining wild horse herds, ranchers call mustang slaughter a humane solution to overpopulation. "If I was a horse and had the choice of dying of old age standing in some government corral or being harvested, I'd choose the latter," said J.J. Goicoechea, the president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Assn.
The market for horse meat might even grow. Although domestic horse slaughter was banned in 2006, prompting shipments to Mexico and Canada, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday approved an application for a New Mexico facility to start killing horses. Applications from two other states are expected to be approved in the coming days as well.
"The way I see it, they're for consumption," says former kill buyer Bill Quinlan. "They're healthier than beef; no cholesterol."
One of those who has regularly tangled with BLM is Laura Leigh, the activist who watched the early morning roundup in the Antelope Valley. She is the founder of Wild Horse Education, an advocacy group in Reno, and many of her battles have played out in the courts.
Leigh has sued the BLM over poor public access to roundups and over inhumane treatment of the animals. Her legal challenges include graphic photos and videos. Leigh has documented overloaded trailers, pregnant mares run for miles, mustangs shocked with electric prods.
In the past, the BLM has attributed such behavior to rogue contract workers.
Though her efforts led the BLM to announce new roundup protocols, the Antelope Valley gather ended with four horse deaths. One fractured its leg trying to jump from a corral and another broke its neck during transport. Each was put down with a bullet to the head.
BLM officials have denied that contract helicopter pilots intentionally bump horses with the landing gear. But one former contract pilot admitted to such actions. "It happens. You nudge 'em, just to get their attention," Wyoming pilot Rick Harmon said. "We handle thousands of horses and sometimes they get hurt. These are wild animals, not horses in your pasture."
Leigh says such treatment of America's wild mustangs legitimizes her vigilance.
"When you witness horses being mistreated, how can you believe anything the BLM says about its concern over the welfare of these animals?" she said. "And if these abuses take place in our presence, what happens to these horses when no one is looking?"
As for the ranchers, if some had their way, there wouldn't be one wild horse left in Nevada. Jack Payne, a fourth-generation Nevada cattleman, doesn't hide his disdain for the mustangs.
"Oh sure, we could all get warm and fuzzy and say, 'We should save all the wild mustangs,' but my advice to these activists is to use your common sense and not your bleeding hearts. You can't save all these horses," he said.